Okay, I’ve got no delusions — I will never give up meat entirely. I simply love bacon too much. That and a good piece of steak. However, I have recently been trying to cut out as much meat – in particular red meat – as possible from my diet. There are a number of reasons, most of which are center around my health, weight and desire to live a long time. In support of that effort, I’ve been turning to some old vegetarian cook books on the shelf, and I’ve even purchased a few new ones. I’ve got to admit, I’m excited. Really excited.
The whole, get your act together and get healthy thing has been brewing for quite some time. Even before Mr. Grey was born, but especially since he was born, I’ve had a desire to get it together and loose the 30 pounds I’ve put on since college – going on 15 years ago. A few weeks ago, I had what you might call a watershed moment. I was planning TKD’s 40′th birthday party and had all the fixin’s for my kick ass meat fest chili. (It starts with bacon and improves from there.) One of my good friends gave me a call that day to see if he could bring anything. I happened to mention that another mutual friend — one with whom I’ve had limited contact over the past few years — was coming. Gus said, “Well, that adds a whole new wrinkle to the day.” I asked why, to which he responded, “You know he and his wife are vegetarians, don’t you?”
Because I couldn’t stand the thought of having friends over and not having something appropriate for them to eat, my plans shifted right then and there. Instead of making 16 quarts of meat fest chili, I would make two pots, one would be meat and one would be vegetarian. Well, I really had no idea where to start, but I did have a bunch of good veggies in the fridge — which seemed destined to rot because I always buy them with good intentions, but have a tendency to get lazy about them.
If you know me, you know I don’t do well with following recipes…so I made the veggie chili up on the spot. I started with the usual base of onions and green peppers, with the plan to add black beans, kidneys, chipotle in adobo sauce, and tomatoes. I could have stopped there, but I knew it needed something more, to bulk it up, so it could stand on it’s own as a meal. I fell back on the age old combination of celery, ca rots, and onions as the starter, then added the peppers. This helped, but I still felt it needed something to provide bulk. I frantically looked in the cupboards for some different kinds of beans, found some garbanzos and added them, but still felt it needed something more. That’s when I found the sweet potatoes. It sounded kind of odd at first, but I figured “How bad can it be?” so I pealed them and cubed them and added them to the kettle.
For those of you who have not had sweet potatoes often (except for as a side at thanksgiving with either brown sugar, marshmallows, or both) well I’ve got news for you, they really aren’t’ that sweet and they will take on flavors pretty readily. They also break down nicely and thicken up stews. My veggie chili was a hit. It actually went faster than my meat chili — which was something considering that most of the folks there had raved about my meat chili in the past.
Now, this wouldn’t be a story about dipping my toe into vegetarianism if that was all there was to the story, would it.
Thanksgiving came and went — we went down south to TKD’s mom’s house. December started. I was thinking a lot about how successful the veggie chili had been, and I started trying to re-create it. One downside to not following recipes is that many meals are never quite the same. Some get perfected over time, some don’t. Usually they improve. The attempts to re-create the chili were not going well. I’m still not sure what I’m doing wrong. But these set backs made me pick up an old Moosewood Cookbook — Moosewood Cooks at Home. I found a really awesome recipe for Tunisian Vegetable Stew which introduced me to some spices I was not familiar with like Turmeric. I made it one cold Saturday and I was hooked — the next day I was at the book store to get another Moosewood cookbook.
Moosewood New Classics really is just that — a collection of recipes that are destined to become classics in my house. Among some early favorites are Winter Vegetable Curry, and Greens and Potato Hash – which is an awesome recipe for potato hash, which incorporates greens (collards, kale, mustard, etc). I really have enjoyed cooking these veggie dishes for a number of reasons. First, they are fast — it doesn’t take much time to cook veggies compared to meat — which is really nice on the week nights. Second, I’ve begun to explore some flavors with which I’m not that familiar — like cardamom and coriander. Third, if you are so inclined, you can really work at getting creative with the veggies in your cooking.
Tonight, I made veggie lasagna — largely because I had some ricotta that needed to get used or go in the garbage. Now, I generally HATE veggie lasagna. Mostly, because it’s usually watery and nasty. I was determined not to have that happen. I decided to approach it as if it were a standard meat lasagna. I sautéed my onions and mushrooms with some garlic. Cut up some broccoli and kale, added them to the pot and threw in a carrot for good measure. I sautéed the whole mess of veggies up until it was almost a ratatouille – then added some tomato sauce. I basically made veggie bolognaise. The mixture was tight. I figured this would help avoid watery lasagna. And, I was right.
My wife said, “You know, I usually don’t like veggie lasagna, but this is great.” I smiled, and in chorus we both said, “It’s not watery.”